Following Nebraska’s 56-10 loss at Michigan, the coaches made a few changes to the depth chart against Purdue. One of those was at wide receiver.
Redshirt freshman Kade Warner, a walk-on out of Scottsdale, Arizona, started at flanker opposite Stanley Morgan Jr. He contributed as a blocker during Nebraska’s first-quarter touchdown drive and caught two passes for 16 yards late in the second quarter as the Huskers tried to get into scoring range just before halftime.
“I was ready and I was just excited,” Warner said after the game. “It was a great time out there. I wish we had a better outcome, but it was a fun first game … I felt like I did well. I could have done better, obviously; I feel like a lot of us could have done better. I wish I could have contributed more to the outcome and changed it a little bit, but better luck next week.”
Heading into the week, Warner had no idea he’d be seeing the first action of his career, let alone starting.
“Last week started out the same as normal and then some guys got banged up and we moved a guy to R so I kind of had to move outside a little bit and I made some plays,” Warner said after practice on Tuesday. “[Coach Troy Walters] liked me and I was told probably Thursday or Friday, kind of that I got the nod, that I was going to either start or play a good amount.”
Once the son of a former NFL start quarterback got word that he was probably going to be making his Huskers debut, he gave his parents, Kurt and Brenda, a heads up. With roughly 24 hours of notice, the Warners booked a flight and a hotel room and made it to Lincoln to see their son play for the first time.
“It definitely caught them off-guard,” Kade said. “I let them know Wednesday or Thursday, like ‘Hey guys, I’m kind of moving up a little bit; I’m just letting you guys know.’ They were excited for me, and then Friday I kind of got out there and I was in the mix and I told them ‘Hey guys, I might be out there this week.’ They said ‘No way, we’ve got to be there.’ So they were able to be there.”
— Brenda Warner (@WarnerBrenda) September 29, 2018
Warner has come a long way since high school. Despite setting an 11-man record in Arizona with 241 career catches, Warner only received one Division I scholarship offer, from San Diego.
“I was going to walk on at Arizona State, just home town, 15 minutes from my house and then a GA named Blair Tushaus was coaching at my high school and then was a GA here at the time, and he goes ‘Nebraska’s awesome, you have to come take a visit here,’” Warner said. “So I was like ‘All right, I’ll come take a visit.’ I came here and he kind of walked me through things and I loved the last coaching staff, I loved the environment, the fans, the stadium, everything. I love the Big Ten a lot, the Big Ten environment of it’s their pro football.”
Warner guessed his lack of top-end speed is what kept schools from pulling the trigger on him despite his gaudy receiving numbers, but he’s happy where he ended up.
“I don’t know why I didn’t get offers but I’m here now and I love it here,” Warner said.
Warner made enough of an impression on Mike Riley’s staff when he arrived in 2017 to crack the 105-man roster for fall camp, but his dream of playing right away was dashed just a few days in with a broken hand.
“As a walk-on true freshman, you have expectations and one of the expectations I had was to make fall camp, and I was lucky enough to do that,” Warner said. “So the next expectation was now I’ve got to work to travel and I’ve got to work to do the next thing, so you’re never satisfied with where you're at. I was working harder and harder and then the third day of fall camp, right before full pads, is when I broke my hand. So that kind of hurt me a little bit but I still redshirted last year and I learned a lot.”
Then Bill Moos fired Riley and hired Scott Frost, and with that came a certain level of uncertainty about the future that comes with any coaching change.
“Everyone has some little worries about how the offense is going to work with your personnel and with this offense being a high-tempo, fast-paced offense, you wonder where a guy with less than 4.4 speed can fit in,” Warner said.
However, Warner identified with he message his new coaches shared and felt early on that he’d have a chance to find a role in Frost’s offense.
“Like they say, no fear of failure,” Warner said. “They really preach that and they really practice that on the field. They get everybody reps and everybody a chance to make plays and we saw that in spring ball and our walk-throughs even before spring ball. Everyone’s going to get reps, and if you can play, you’re going to be out there playing. From the very start, what they were preaching and what they were showing out there, everyone knew that they could play here and they can play here. It’s just a matter of when they will.”
Like so many players that have come before him in Lincoln, Warner used the lack of scholarship offers as motivation as he sought to prove he belonged.
“I think all walk-ons have a chip on their shoulder,” Warner said. “A lot of the walk-ons were ballers in high school and they just have to get their chance to show it. In high school when you’re a [future] walk-on and you’re under-recruited, you kind of feel like you can play at the next level and it’s just kind of hard because you don’t feel like anybody else thinks you can. So coming here, you have to have a chip on your shoulder, you have to be ready to show people what you can do. We have a ton of good walk-ons, great walk-ons here that have a chip on their shoulder and know they can play.”
Warner’s path to at Nebraska isn’t the typical walk-on story. His father’s name casts such a wide shadow in the football world and while he’s grateful for all of the opportunities that has provided for him, he is also seeking to build his own legacy.
“That label of ‘Kurt Warner’s son’ is always going to be there, whether it’s positive or negative, and there are expectations when I come in here of who I am and how I’m going to work,” Warner said. “But after people get to meet me and they see how hard I work and that I go every day with he same intent that everybody else does, I feel like that label kind of wears off to people that know me and I’m just Kade Warner.”
Warner’s diverging path from his father included playing a different position, but natural talent had something to do with that as well. Despite his good genes, Kade wasn’t blessed with the same kind of arm his father had.
“When I was really young, he’d kind of pushed me out there and said ‘Hey, you wanted to throw around a couple balls?’” Warner said. “After a couple balls, I’d go right back to what I was, a center at the time, so closest I could get to quarterback.”
As the son for an NFL player, he was around the game from an early age. He said he was a “big football guy” when he was young, so much so that he had a big binder full of as many football cards as he could get his hands on.
Where was his father’s card in that book? Towards the back. They had more Kurt Warner cards than they knew what to do with.
Who was first? His father’s favorite target in Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald.
“Larry Fitz was my guy growing up; he’s a baller,” Warner said. “I try to model my game after him just because how well he uses his body and his hands and his work ethic and stuff. he’s always been close to my family, so he’s a great guy.”
Warner was still listed as the starter when Nebraska released this week’s depth chart, suggesting that last weekend’s start wasn’t just a flash in the pan. But whether Warner is out there for the first snap or if he’s on the sideline for the whole game, it won’t impact the way he approaches his work.
“You’ve got to hold your teammates to a standard,” Warner said. “I always try to get out there and I try to push people to work and work harder than what they normally do and I think that being a good teammate is just keep picking people up. They make a bad play or mess up and you just have to say ‘Get back out there and do it again’ and just give them encouragement. I try to do that to all my teammates.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.